Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Some Preliminary Remarks about Thousand and One Nights, ala John Barth and others


A long time ago, when I was much younger and considerably more daring than I am now, I taught a course for a few years entitled "Love and Sex in Literature."  My students and I read and discussed a number of books and stories that have been called pornographic, e.g.: Fanny Hill, De Sade's Justine, Henry Miller's Sexus, The Story of O, etc. I got into a bit of trouble for teaching the course, with one of my colleagues bringing charges of unprofessional conduct against me. However, I had presented research papers at a number of professional conferences and had published several scholarly essays about erotic literature.  International scholars judged my research significant and valuable, and I was declared "innocent" of the charges against me.

But that was another time and I won't dwell on it at this time, although I will come back to some discoveries I made about sex and storytelling while teaching the course. I bring it up simply to indicate that I have been thinking about the relationship between sexuality and storytelling for some time now. My interest actually began when I read John Barth's "Dunyazadiad" in his collection of novellas entitled Chimera (1972).  The story is Barth's tribute to his long-distance love affair with the iconic storyteller Shahrazad.

Barth's version of the famous frame tale of Thousand and One Nights is told by young sister Dunyzade. During the thousand and one nights while Shahrazad engages in multiple ways of making love and myriad ways of telling stories, she and the genie John Barth,(who appears to her from the future when both utter the same magic words at once, "the key to the treasure is the treasure") theorize about the relationship between these two "life-saving" phenomena. Barth/genie tells Sherry that in his own time and place, there are scientists of the passions who maintain that language itself originated in infantile pregenital erotic exuberance, polymorphously perverse, by which "magic phrases" they seem to mean that "writing and reading, or telling and listening," are "literally ways of making love."  Whether this is actually the case, neither the genie nor Sherry care; yet they like to speak "as if" it were (their favorite words, Sherry's sister observes).

This theory "accounted thereby for the similarity between conventional dramatic structure—its exposition, rising action, climax and denouement—and the rhythm of sexual intercourse from foreplay through coitus to orgasm and release." Even more basically, Sherry and the genie talk "as if" the relationship between teller and told is basically erotic, in which the good reader is as involved as the author:

Narrative, in short—and here they were again in full agreement—was a love relation, not a rape: its success depended upon the reader’s consent and cooperation, which she could withhold or at any moment withdraw; also upon her own combination of experience and talent for enterprise, and the author’s ability to arouse, sustain, and satisfy her interest—an ability on which his figurative life hung as surely as Shahrazad's literal.

Just to refresh your memory about the frame tale of Thousand and One Nights: There are two brothers—King Shahrayar of India and Indochina, and his younger brother Shahzaman, who rules Samarkand. After Shahzaman catches his wife having sex with a kitchen boy, he kills both and, grief-stricken, goes to visit his brother. One day he sees Shahrayar's wife having sex with a slave along with twenty other slave girls and men. He tells Shahrayar, who cuts off the head of his wife and all twenty-one slaves.

Shahrayar declares that each day he will marry a virgin, have sex with her, and then order his Vizier to kill her in the morning. After  many girls have died, the Vizier's daughter Sharazad, a refined and intelligent young woman, tells her father that she wants to marry the king so that she might find a way to save the girls of the kingdom or else die. She instructs her younger sister Dunyazad to stay with her and after the king has had sex with her, to say, "Sister, tell us a story." Shahrazad's plan is to finish the story in the middle of the night and then, at her sister's urging, begin another one that she cannot finish by morning. The king, wanting to hear the end of the story, postpones Shahrazad's  execution each morning for over three years.

Hanan al-Shaykh, one of Egypt's best-known novelists, who has often been called "the new Shahrazad," said in an address entitled "The New Shahrazad" at Virginia's Sweet Briar College in 2000, that she was not pleased at this designation, for she felt the archetypal storyteller was the epitome of oppressed Arab women—traditionally only good for sex and entertaining men.

However, al-Shaykh says that after reading One Thousand and One Nights, she realized that Shahrazad was not just telling stories to save her life, but rather to take risks--to assume the role of the artist, creating a mosaic that concealed her own power, thus ceasing to be a victim. Her greatest discovery was that the women in these stories were not passive and fearful, but rather strong and intelligent.:

Shahrazad took the role of the artist, the creator, the story-teller who would test her own ability and rise above common artistry. She would penetrate every insight in order to tell stories that would excite, provoke, thrill, educate, and persuade indirectly, like transparent spiders’ threads continuing without taking breath, without finishing her story, fully aware that if she stopped to take that single breath between stories, she would be offering her neck to the sword, and she would be giving the king a chance to remember his twisted logic and his dark emotion."

I recently read Hanan al-Shaykh's new translation of Thousand and One Nights, subtitled "A Retelling.   I have a ten-volume set of Richard F. Burton's famous translation of Alf Laylah Wa-laylah, and over the years, have pulled a volume off my bookshelf to randomly read a story, that always compelled me to read another and then another.  But, if you are daunted by the multi-volumes, I recommend al-Shaykh's new one-volume translation.

 Al-Shaykh has stayed away from children's stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba , saying she preferred to stick with stories about marriage and  sex and love and  power about misogynists who killed their wives or lovers and  women who had to become cunning and manipulative  to save themselves. She has restored the sexuality that the famous English version by Edward Lane in 1838 deleted.  The need to tell stories is the underlying driving force of Thousand and One Nights, beginning with Shahrazad who has the most powerful motivation of all—to tell stories or to die. Stories lead to stories, which lead to other stories, until the reader is drawn so far away from the originating story that it begins to seem that only stories exist, and that the reader may never find his or her way back to reality.  Indeed, the "word "reality" becomes increasingly problematical.

In a piece in The New York Times entitled "Narrate or Die," on April 18, 1999, A. S. Byatt said:

"The stories in Thousand and One Nights are stories about storytelling without ever ceasing to be stories about love and life and death and money and good and other human necessities.  Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood…. We are all, like Scheherazade, under sentence of death, and we all think of our lives as narrative, with beginning, middles and ends."

In an interview in The Atlantic, (Joe Fassler, "The Humanist Message Hidden Amid the Violence of One Thousand and One Nights, June 25, 2013), Hanan Al-Shaykh says that Shahrazad is working on the King through the stories, educating him, maybe even brainwashing him, as the stories slowly teach him to give up his bloodlust and his blanket condemnation of women.  She says the book indicates a role for literature to make us more human—not polemical, not political, but on a human level.  The stories humanize us and make us better, she says. How a story can do this is something the cognitive psychologists are trying to determine in their study of what is called Theory of Mind.

Some Remarks about Sensate Focus and the Suspension of Disbelief next week.  Also some remarks about Marina Warner's 2012 book Stranger Magic: Charmed Stories and the Arabian Nights.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Alice Munro: Sex and Storytelling in Selected Stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage


Magdalene Redekop, author of the very fine book, Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro (1992), was one of the presenters at the Alice Munro Symposium I attended in Ottawa in May of this year; she talked about "Lichen," from The Progress of Love (1986). The title of the story refers to a close-up polaroid photograph of a woman's genitals, which the central female characters thinks looks like lichen, or moss on a rock: "The legs are spread wide--smooth, golden, monumental: fallen columns. Between them is the dark blot she called moss, or lichen.  But it's really more like the dark pelt of an animal, with the head and tail and feet chopped off.  Dark silky pelt of some unlucky rodent."

Redekop spoke about how densely allusive the story is, how each time you read it, different chords "resonate." But the allusion Redekop cited that struck me most profoundly was to the primal collection of stories 1001 Nights, in which the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade tells different stories each night for three years to save her life. 

Redekop said what echoed for her in the story. Because she just happened to be reading a review of Marina Warner's book on the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic at the time, she was most taken with the phrase the central male character David in the Munro story uses to describe the way he dumps women—"the big chop." The sentence from Warner's book that makes the connection for Redekop  is this: "The power of stories to forge destinies has never been so memorably and sharply put as it is in this cycle, in which the blade of the executioner's sword lies on the storyteller's neck."  Thus, the "big chop."

Redekop makes a number of valuable suggestions about the implications of seeing Munro as a kind of Scheherazade, who, unlike other magical storytellers influenced by 1001 Nights, such as Rushdie, Calvino, and Marquez, Munro stays with the realism of the frame story, using its stability to "take liberties in the stories within stories—where, as in the Arabian Nights, 'heads are lopped off' and 'no shape stays constant for a second'."

Having recently read a new translation of Thousand and One Nights, I was quite taken by Redekop's image of Munro as Scheherazade, but  during the question and answer period following her presentation, when I tried to explain why it had such an impact of me, I ended up blathering on about how I loved Alice Munro—which sounded banal since everyone at the conference loved Alice Munro.  However, I did not mean simply that I loved her writing or the image of her as a grande dame of the short story, but that when I read her stories, I fell in love with her.  Redekop's citation of the Scheherazade connection somehow justified that confession of love, which I have since been trying to articulate for myself.

As it happens, Bob Thacker, author of the highly respected  authoritative biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, who was my fellow keynoter at the Ottawa Munro Symposium, asked if I would be interested in contributing an essay to a new collection of studies of Munro to be published by Bloomsbury Academic publishers for their series, "Bloomsbury Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction."  The series usually includes three essays each on three of the chosen author's most recent books; it used to be called Continuum Studies in North American Fiction and has featured such authors as Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich.

I always get most energized on a subject that obsesses me when I am aiming toward a final, finished essay or book, so Bob Thacker's invitation was the ideal excuse to once again immerse myself in the stories of Alice Munro.  The three Munro collections to be featured in the book Thacker is editing are: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), and Dear Life (2012).  I chose to write about the Hateship volume and sent the following proposal to Bob for his consideration:

                         "The Key to the Treasure": 
          Sex and Storytelling in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
In her review of Alice Munro's collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, American writer Lorrie Moore praises Munro's genius as a storyteller, arguing that the "birth and death of erotic love" is her timeless subject. In his review of the same collection, Irish writer John McGahern, also applauds Munro's mastery of the story form, insisting that no one writes as well as Munro about "the hardhearted energy of sex." This essay focuses on the relationship between erotic love and storytelling in five stories from the Hateship collection—"Floating Bridge," "Nettles," "Post and Beam," "What is Remembered," and the title story. The Thousand and One Nights and John Barth's exploration of the relationship between storytelling and Eros in his novella Dunyazadiad, provide a context for this essay's examination of the significance of "what is remembered," and thus narrated, about erotic love, as well as the magical means by which Munro's seemingly realistic stories communicate their complex and ambiguous meaning.
I wrote Bob and told him that I would be using my blog to post my "work in progress" on the essay.  I also sent a copy of the proposal to Maggie Redekop and told her the same. I will not be posting the final essay on the blog, for that might possibly infringe on Bloomsbury's first serial rights, in the event they publish the essay. What I will be posting are citations from stories, criticism, theories, reviews, and other literary works, as well as exploratory ruminations. If at any time Bob Thacker thinks I am coming too close to preempting the publication of the essay in the book he is editing, I will cease and desist.

I just thought it might be interesting for readers to follow my progress. (I always come up with about ten times the amount of primary and secondary material than I actually use in the final essay; my blog readers might appreciate the overflow). It might also generate some additional interest in the book, which would be good for Bloomsbury and for Alice Munro.  Let me know if you think this is a good idea or a bad idea. Barring any serious objections, I will begin posting my progress on the project next week.


Monday, July 14, 2014

A Tribute to Nadine Gordimer: 1923-2014


The death of South African writer and Nobel-Prize winner this weekend is a sad loss to lovers of brilliant fiction—both short and long. Obits in major newspapers will inevitably focus on her social activism and political novels about Apartheid.  For example, the obit headline in The New York Times  today read "Nadine Gordimer, Novelist Who Took on Apartheid, is Dead at 90." The opening paragraph of The Guardian reads: "The South African Nobel-prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, one of the literary world's most powerful voices against apartheid, has died at the age of 90, her family say."

Recognition of Gordimer in the world press as a political voice and the author of socially-significant novels is to be expected.  However, it underrates her talent to suggest that her fiction should be valued primarily as polemical. Indeed, she often decried the polemical and said that had she not been born in a country where racial strife was a significant fact of life, her fiction would probably not have been political at all.

Although she published twenty collections of short stories, I expect most commentators will talk about her novels this week, for indeed, they are the most obviously political. As I have suggested many times before, the short story form does not lend itself to the social and the political, for it cannot tolerate the kind of broad context and discursive argument often necessary for the polemical.

Gordimer had a great deal of respect for the short story. When I was editing my first book Short Story Theories, reading everything I could find on the form, I discovered a wonderful Symposium on the Short Story published by The Kenyon Review in 1968 and 1969, featuring discussions and opinions on the short story by writers from all over the world.  One of the most pertinent and powerful pieces was the essay by Nadine Gordimer, which, with her permission, I reprinted in my book with a title taken from her essay, "The Flash of Fireflies."

Gordimer noted that literary critics consider the short story as a "minor art form," but that "like a child suffering from healthy neglect, the short story survives."  She argued that if the short story is alive while many are dissatisfied with the novel as a means for "netting ultimate reality," it is because the short story as "a kind of creative vision must be better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality at a time we are drawing nearer to the mystery of life or are losing ourselves in a bellowing wilderness of mirrors."

Here is the most important passage from Gordimer's essay:

"Short-story writers always have been subject at the same time  to both a stricter technical discipline and a wider freedom than the novelist.  Short-story writers have known--and solved by nature of their choice of form—what novelists seem to have discovered in despair only now: the strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped by human reality.  How shall I put it? Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness.  Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be pure of—the present moment."

There, my friends, is one of the most perceptive statements every made about the short story.  Gordimer knew the magic and mysteries of the form very well indeed. It is in her short stories that the political is backgrounded and the complexity of human beings facing universal conflicts and tensions is made the true subject of narrative.

One of my favorite Gordimer short stories is from one of her best-known collections, the 1952 The Soft Voice of the Serpent, which I bought in the mid-sixties as a 25-cent paperback with a garish cover.  The story is "The Train from Rhodesia," which focuses on a young woman on a train with her husband traveling through Africa. I liked the story so much I included it in my textbook collection Fiction's Many Worlds.

The challenge for the reader is to understand  the relationship between the personal conflict within the young woman and the events of the story--the train stopping for vendors to sell their wares and her husband's purchase of a carved lion. At first this seems less a story than a picture, albeit a moving picture full of dynamic and picturesque action, until we enter the mind of the young woman and realize that she is the central consciousness, that this is her story. 
We discover on our first entry into her thoughts that she has recently been married, that this trip into the African bush (maybe her honeymoon) seems curiously unreal, and that she has some difficulty thinking of her husband as being "for good" and not part of that unreality.  Although no explicit conflict is suggested by these thoughts, they prompt the reader to be alert for a clash between her and her new husband.
After the young man haggles with the artist/peddler and buys the lion for his wife for one-and six rather than the three-and-six the vendor asked for it, the expected conflict erupts; however, the reader is no more prepared for it than the hapless husband, nor any better able to understand the cause of the young woman's anger. The only explicit clue we have is when we enter the woman's mind one more time and discover that she feels shame for her husband having purchased the lion for so little. However, that this has made her discover a weariness, a tastelessness, and a void in her very being seems like an extreme over-reaction. What must be determined, to use the phrase coined by T. S. Eliot, is how the purchase of the lion is an "objective correlative" for the young woman's sense of existential emptiness.
Although Nadine Gordimer is often concerned in her novels with the conflicts between Whites and Blacks in South Africa, it would be an oversimplification to read this story as a social criticism of the way Whites have exploited the culture of the region. Although indeed this situation may be the social context for the story, the conflict has to do with more basic issues: the difference between the creative and the commercial, the real and the unreal, the cheap and the valuable, and consequently, the meaningful and the meaningless.
The young woman wants the lion to be a work of art, not a commercial product; she wants it to be expensive, valuable, meaningful. When the old peddler sells it so cheaply, it is as though she has lost some rare embodiment of the unreality she has experienced in the past few weeks. That her new husband buys it at such a small price makes her despair and loneliness all the more painful, for she thinks he should have known how she would feel.  Like many of her short stories, this is not a political story, except in the broadest understanding of that term.
I have read Gordimer stories throughout the years. Some of my favorite collections are:  Livingstone's Companions (1970), A Soldier's Embrace (1980), Jump and Other Stories¸(1991), Loot and Other Stories  (2003), and Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black.  (2007). I wrote reviews of these last two and include excerpts from those reviews below:

Loot And Other Stories (2003)

Because some of the freedoms that Nadine Gordimer has always bravely fought for in South Africa have been realized, the stories in this collection may not seem so politically pointed as her previous works.  However, the brief title story is still perhaps a cautionary parable of the danger facing the post-apartheid world of South Africa. When an earthquake tips a continental shelf and draws the ocean back, revealing secret treasures, people rush in to loot, only to have the sea sweep back to add them to its treasury.

The two most conventional stories in the collection have nothing to do with racial tensions in South Africa, but rather examine in Gordimer’s usual tight ironic style, familiar themes. “The Generation Gap” explores how grown-up children react when their sixty-seven year old father leaves their mother for a much younger woman.  It’s a wonderfully wistful and cleverly comic exploration of the hard fact that whereas young people cannot imagine what it is like to be old, older people can never quite forget what it was like to be young. “The Diamond Mine” is a story that has been told many times before, about a sixteen-year-old girl who is surreptitiously seduced in the back seat of her parents’ car by a young soldier they are taking to camp. Concealed by a blanket, while her father, oblivious as fathers often are, prattles on about diamonds, the soldier’s exploring hands are invasive but not entirely unwelcome.

In the novella-length “Mission Statement,” forty-six-year-old Roberta Blayne, who works for an international aid agency, falls in love with a Deputy Director of Land Affairs, who happens to be a native African.  Rather than a simple polemical story of racial divides in a post-apartheid world, this syntactically demanding fiction concludes with an abrupt reminder of cultural divergence as she turns down his proposal that she become his simultaneous second wife.

“Karma,” defined as “the sum and the consequence of a person’s actions during the successive phases of his existence,” is another novella-length piece that examines the Eternal Return of a single existence in five different reincarnations--male and female, young and old--to atone for previous errors, right past wrongs, and complete acts previously left undone.

Although she is optimistic about South Africa’s future, Gordimer is not so na├»ve as to think that the fall of apartheid signals a rosy utopia.  She knows that the residue of racial intolerance and the clash of disparate cultures cannot be eradicated by a simple regime change. A collection of stories by a committed writer, for whom politics is inevitably part of the human condition, is always welcome, especially if she is such a fine artist as Nadine Gordimer.

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black.  (2007)

Now that her old subject, South African apartheid, is history, Nadine Gordimer seems to have made history her new focus.  In the title story of her tenth collection, a biology professor hears a radio presenter announce that Beethoven was one-sixteenth black, and ponders that while once blacks wanted to be white, now there are whites wanting to be black. Exploring his own anti-apartheid past and his possible black ancestry, the man recognizes that the past is valid only if the present recognizes it.

In “A Frivolous Woman,” when “a grandmother who had never grown up” dies, her family finds a trunk filled with fancy dress costumes she brought from Berlin as a refugee from Nazi extermination. Although they laugh at her frivolity, Gordimer knows that the costumes are not her whole story, quoting L. P. Hartley’s memorable line, “The past is a foreign country.” “Beneficiary” also examines haunting remnants of the past, beginning with the warning that caches of old papers are graves that one should not open.  When a woman’s actress mother dies, she discovers a letter revealing that she is the child of an actor with whom her mother had an affair.  At the end of the story, when the man she thought to be her father hugs her, she knows that love has nothing to do with DNA.

The dangers of exploring the foreign country that is the past is also central to “Allesverloren,” which means “everything lost,” in which a history teacher whose husband has died, searches out a man with whom he had a homosexual affair years before.  Not all these stories are serious explorations of the past. Gregor,” with apologies to Kafka’s dung beetle, is a lighthearted  jeu d’esprit about a writer finding a small cockroach behind the plastic window of her word processor, until it consumes itself and becomes a hieroglyph to be decoded. In “Safety Procedures,” when the narrator experiences terrifying air turbulence, he is astonished when his calm seat partner assures him that he will be safe, for she has tried to kill herself three times this year and failed.  These are just mischievous finger exercises, concept pieces.  But then, even a Nobel-Prize winner has the right to fool around a little.

Gordimer’s literary playfulness is more serious in the three stories collectively entitled “Alternative Endings,” which she self-reflexively introduces by announcing that she wishes to try out three different endings to basically the same story . Somewhat artificially structured on the senses of sight, hearing, and smell, each explore her favorite non-political subject—love affairs and infidelity. Although this is more a miscellany than an even-textured short story collection, even when she is playing around, Gordimer is always a pleasure to read.

My thanks to Nadine Gordimer for her brilliant understanding and mastery of the short story.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Origins of the Short Story in British Romantic Period: Part II: "Dream Children," "The Vampyre," "Wandering Willie's Tale"


T. O Beachcroft suggests that Charles Lamb's most famous essay, "Dream Children," from   Essays of Elia (1822), because of its narrative movement and its management of time between the present and the past, is a central example of the emergence of the short story from the essay.  However, the piece is typical of  basic short story conventions in more intrinsic ways in that it is a story about the telling of story as well as a story about a purely imaginative event. It also anticipates the short story in depending upon a surprise ending in which storytelling itself is revealed to be reverie. On a first reading of "Dream Children," one has no reason to doubt the actuality of the dramatic event described: that of the narrator's children sitting around him to hear about their great grandmother and their uncle, that is, until the very end of the piece when the narrator awakes and finds himself in his bachelor arm chair. 
The mode of the story does not make it clear whether it is a pure dream tale or whether it is a combination of dream and reverie, a kind of hypnogogic state. The latter seems the most likely, both because of the subtitle, "A Reverie," and because of the specificity of the events recalled from the past. The story is a combination of both dream and memory; the tale the narrator tells to the children is memory, but the children themselves are a product of projective imagination. The entire story is told in terms of the telling of the telling; the present time is that of Elia writing about his telling the story to the children. The imagined events, because they correspond so closely to reactions of the children to the  story itself, so convince us of the irreality that we are affected by the sentimental nature of the whole of the tale until the conclusion when we discover that the teller is an old bachelor and that the children are only those who might have been.  
No one really exists in the piece except the teller himself; all are shades of those who have been or those who are never to be. "Dream Children" is an interesting experiment in the creation of ideal fictional listeners who respond to the separate events of the tale. Thus, the truly narrative mode of the work lies not in the memory that is related, for that indeed is only reverie, but in the narrative of the telling of memory events, in the creation of the listeners to the story. The structure of the piece consists of the alternation of long passages of discursive recollection, beginning with the phrase, "Then I told them how..." with short descriptions of the children's reactions, beginning with such phrases as "Here Alice put on one of her dear mother's looks," "Here John smiled, as much as to say...," 'Here the children fell a crying...." The climax comes when the teller, talking to the children about their dead mother, looks at the child Alice and "the soul of the first Alice looked out of her eyes with such a reality of presentment, that I became in doubt which of them stood there before me." 
  While the narrator gazes, the children grow fainter and recede until only their "mournful features" are seen in the distance, "which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech: 'We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all.... We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams.'"  Because the piece depends so much on the revelation at the end that the "as if real" children listening to the reminiscences are dream children only, the story bears some resemblance to other stories later in the nineteenth century in which a supposedly real character is revealed at the end to be a product of the imagination. Thomas Aldrich's famous American short story "Marjorie Daw" is the most obvious example, but this motif is a common one in the short story in the nineteenth century and is part of the general romantic emphasis on responding to the imaginary as the most significant real. 

Although John Polidori's "The Vampyre: A Tale" (1819) cannot be said to have had a direct influence on the development of the short story in English literature, it deserves mention as the first vampire story in English, which gave rise later to Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla" and many other gothic stories in the latter half of the century. The manner of the story has often been criticized as pretentious, convoluted, and prolix, although the plot idea and many of its details have been said to derive from Byron, most directly from "A Fragment" which Byron appended to  Mazeppa in 1819, and from his earlier verse tale, "The Giaour." 
It is not clear that "The Vampyre" is the story which Polidori started on that famous night on Lake Geneva, for Mary Shelley in her introduction to Frankenstein says that Polidori had in mind some "terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole."  It is more likely that after Byron dismissed Polidori from his service as a physician, Polidori made use of both Byron's public image and Byron's work to create the prototype of the Byronic vampire, Lord Ruthven. Thus, the story is important in the history of gothic romance, and since the gothic is the predominant form of the English nineteenth-century short story, it is important for a study of short fiction in that period also.  However, it is significant for my purposes in a more intrinsic way, primarily in the manner with which it deals with character.  
Indeed the most interesting aspect of "The Vampyre" is the character of the central figure Aubrey and his relationship to the larger-than-life figure of Lord Ruthven, for it is truly Aubrey's story that is central here. Lord Ruthven,  a mysterious figure who inspires awe in those who see him, is more an objectification of Aubrey's own conflicting desires than he is a folklore vampire figure from European myth. His arrival in London is coincident with the arrival of Aubrey, a young gentleman who "cultivated more his imagination than his judgment." Aubrey's central characteristic is that he thinks "the dreams of poets "are the "realities of life." However, discovering that there is "no foundation in real life for any of that congeries of pleasing pictures and descriptions contained in those volumes, from which he had formed his study," he is about to relinquish his dreams when he meets Lord Ruthven, who becomes indeed a figure of the imagination made real. 
In a sentence that both reflects the awkwardness of Polidori's style and the focus of the relationship between Aubrey and Ruthven, we see a central theme of short fiction in the nineteenth century:  "He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact:  allowing his imagination to picture everything that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him."  In the last half of the century, this projection of an imaginative state outward and then the response to it as if it existed in the external world is a dominant short fiction motif.  
  The narrative thrust of the story, as it is for many stories later in the century, is Aubrey's desire to "break that mystery, which to his exalted imagination began to assume the appearance of something supernatural." When Aubrey decides to leave Ruthven in Rome and to travel alone to Greece, another common nineteenth century short story motif is introduced--the projection of the desire for the spiritually beautiful on to an object in the external world.  The Greek girl Ianthe becomes an embodiment of the mystery of pure innocence for Aubrey, "a vision of romance," a "fairy form." After Ianthe is killed, presumably by Ruthven,  Aubrey, in his delirium and despair, calls upon Lord Ruthven and Ianthe as if "by some unaccountable combination he seemed to beg of his former companion to spare the being he loved." The combination is "unaccountable" only in the manifest level of the story. On the unconscious level, it suggests that Ruthven and Ianthe are Manichean projections of Aubrey's own imagination. Indeed, Ruthven's very existence depends on Aubrey's projection of him.   
As the events of the story come full circle, Aubrey is constantly haunted by  Lord Ruthven; he withdraws to solitude and deteriorates both physically and mentally because of his obsession. Aubrey is finally considered insane and  confined to his chambers.  Ultimately,  because his rage cannot be vented against Lord Ruthven (in the manifest story because of an illogical and unmotivated promise, but in the latent story because Lord Ruthven is indeed his own projection) Aubrey breaks a blood vessel. When the hour of midnight strikes, marking the end of his promise, Aubrey "frees himself" by writing the story we have been reading and dies immediately afterwards. 
"The Vampyre" is a flawed version of the kind of story which Robert Louis Stevenson later perfects in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but it is a typical romantic gothic story, for just as Mary Shelley in Frankenstein develops the monster as a projection of Victor Frankenstein's own repressed nature, so also does Aubrey project his own desires on Lord Ruthven, creating out of him a creature of his own imagination. What seems highly implausible in the tale--the fairy tale figure of Ianthe, the promise that Aubrey makes to Ruthven, the illogical companionship of the two men, the marriage of Aubrey's sister to Ruthven—can be accounted for by understanding the image of Ruthven as the active double of the passive and imaginative Aubrey.  The story is an interesting, if primitive, version of a quite common romantic short fiction convention: the mysterious evil figure, projected as an embodiment of the imagination of the central character--a figure who seems more a denizen of story reality than of external reality.  
Poe, of course, develops this motif to its most polished extreme in "The Fall of the House of Usher," although other examples of the theme can be seen in tales throughout the nineteenth century. Aubrey is the typical romantic searcher for that which is supernatural, i.e. that which is a product of the pure imagination. The romantic notion of the quest for the purely spiritual (which then ironically is reduced to the  merely physical), or the corresponding quest for the spiritual in the physical,  can be seen later in the gothic fictions of Hawthorne, Poe, Le Fanu, Bulwer Lytton, and others.  It is also a common theme in the stories of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Hoffman, Gautier, and Nerval. I am not suggesting that Polidori is responsible for these themes, but rather that he serves as the clumsy transmitter of romantic motifs which become common devices in short fiction later in the century. 

The best known example of the oral folk tale in the early nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott's insert tale in  Redgauntlet which is often anthologized as "Wandering Willie's Tale" (1824).  Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, the story has been called by Wendell Harris and Julia Briggs Scott's "only fully successful brief narrative" and "almost a textbook example of the well-told tale as opposed to the short story." The story differs from the previous pieces I have discussed in that it is  oral rather than written and thus more radically foregrounds the character of the teller.  Because the tone of the tale takes on such importance, the story manifests a self-conscious ambiguity as to whether the events recounted are supernatural or psychologically realistic. The story has much the same oral ironic tone as the famous tales by Washington Irving and much the same ambiguity  concerning the tension between dream reality and external reality as the tales of Hawthorne. 
"Wandering Willie's Tale" forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale in which confrontations with the devil are the stock in trade and the later British mystery story in which the supposed supernatural is accounted for in a grotesque but naturalistic way. Thus, there are both folklore elements as well as literary elements in the story, although the literary is not as pronounced as in the works of Washington Irving who subsumes the folk tale by a more sophisticated style of the teller. Although the Scottish dialect of Willie's telling and the somewhat trivial crux of the missing money and rent receipt on which the story depends undercut the seriousness of the supernatural and make the story a cause for chuckles rather than horror, what primarily makes the story more interesting than the old fashioned ghost story is the foregrounding of the theme of the supernaturalizing of the natural which lies at the very heart of the folk tale impulse itself.  As is evident from his  Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Scott was familiar enough with this impulse to play with the conventions that underlie it. 
Both the supernatural and the natural are presented side by side in the tale to create a pattern of motifs which mocks the Lord of the manor, Sir Robert, even as it also lightly mocks the supernatural explanation  of mysterious events.  The central events in the story are the mysterious disappearance of the rent money which Steenie pays to Sir Robert just before his death and Steenie's consequent visit to hell to obtain the receipt he needs to prove he paid the rent. The basic manifest motivation of the tale is to clear Steenie's good name, even as the satiric thrust is to lay disrepute on the name of Redgauntlet and thus register a triumph of the lower class over the higher. 
Sir Robert is presented as a powerful figure so hated and feared that he is made mythical by the folk as one who has a compact with Satan. This fearsome image is undercut when Steenie goes to pay the master his rent, for Sir Robert  dies in grotesquely comic struggle with the gout, screaming for water to put his legs in, all the time being mocked by his pet Jack an'ape. The Jack an'ape plays a crucial role in the story not only in providing the naturalistic explanation for many of the seemingly supernatural events, but in being presented as a grotesque "familiar" for Sir Robert, both of whom bear the image of the fiend in the folk imagination  "a fearsome couple." At the end of the story, Willie notes that many feel that the shape of the fiend that the butler saw on Sir Robert's coffin was the monkey, as it was the monkey who blew the master's silver whistle which summoned the butler to his death from fright. It is of course the ape also who is responsible for hiding the money in the old turret called "Cat's Cradle." Thus the monkey serves as a crucial naturalistic explanation for supposed supernatural events as well as a metaphoric image of Sir Robert himself. 
Stennie's trip to hell to get the receipt is seemingly motivated by his drinking of brandy and his calling upon Satan to help clear his name of being a thief and a cheat. However, it is also an objectification of Steenie's exasperated reply to Sir Robert's son's question about the whereabouts of the money: it is "in hell!  with your father and his silver whistle." The stranger who meets Steenie in his ride through the dark forest is a typical figure of folklore which both Irving and Hawthorne use in their tales of Sleepy Hollow and Young Goodman Brown. Steenie responds to his journey to a hell like image of the Redgauntlet castle filled with ghastly revelers as if he were "like a man in a dream."  After receiving the receipt from Sir Robert and being ordered to return in one year, Steenie calls on God's name and immediately finds himself lying in the old churchyard of the Redgauntlet parish. "Steenie would have thought the whole thing was a dream, but he had the receipt in his hand."
 The explanation of the mystery of the money is provided very quickly, as Sir John finds the Cat's Cradle, kills the jack an'ape, and urges Steenie to say nothing about his "dream" in the wood of Pittmurkie. Thus, the central ambiguity of the tale, whether the events took place in the realm of superstition and folklore or whether they took place in the real world depends on whether it is the Lord of the manor's good name that is to be preserved or whether it is Steenie's reputation that must be secured.  Thus, because of the ambiguous tone of the teller, "Wandering Willie's Tale" marks a transition from the supernatural tale of the folk to the modern short story in which the supposed supernatural has either a naturalistic or a psychologized explanation. In the next phase of the British short story, with the quasi-scientific mystery stories of Wilkie Collins and Edward Bulwer Lytton, this ambiguity becomes the central concern of the narrative. 
The nineteenth-century short story differs from earlier short fictions because it combines the following previous separate generic conventions: the basically sacred and symbolic tale of romance and folk ballad; the personal voice of the eighteenth century essay; the focus on everyday reality of the realistic novel; and the sense of reality as an imaginative projection of Romantic poetry. The result of the union of these seemingly incompatible conventions is a new tradition of short fiction that first comes to full flower in America and Europe at mid-century, but whose traces can be found in  short fiction in England a generation earlier.   

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H.  Natural Supernaturalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., l97l.
Beachcroft, T. O. The Modest Art . London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 86.
Briggs, Julia. Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. London: Faber and Faber,1977), p. 101.
Canby, H. S. The Short Story in English. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., l909), p. 303.
Exjenbaum, B. M. "The Structure of Gogol's 'The Overcoat'," trans. Beth Paul and Muriel Nesbitt,  The Russian Review, 22 (Oct. 1963): 377-99.
Gerould, Katherine Fullerton. "The American Short Story," Yale Review, 13 (July 1924), p. 645. 
Harris, Wendell. "The Short Story in Embryo,"  English Literature in Transition), 15 (1972), 261-268.
Harris, Wendell. "Beginnings of the True Short Story in England," English Literature in Transition," 15 (1972): 269-76;
Harris, Wendell. "English Short Fiction in the l9th Century,"  Studies in Short Fiction) 6 (Fall 1968): 1414.
Kos, Erih. Kenyon Review, 30 (1968): 454.
Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience. New York: Random House, l957.
Lukacs, Georg. Solzhenitsyn, trans. William David Graf (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969), pp.7-9.
Matthews, Brander. "The Philosophy of the Short Story. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., l901.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co.,1963), pp.20-2l.
Perry, Bliss. A Study in Prose Fiction. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., l902, p. 303.
Rohrberger, Mary.  Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story: A Study in Genre. The Hague: Mouton; Co., 1966), p. 141.
Stevenson, Lionel. "Vision and Form: The English Novel and the Emergence of the Short Story," Victorian Newsletter, No. 47, (Spring 1975) : 8-12. 

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Origins of the Short Story in the British Romantic Period: Part I


     Dorothy Johnston, a valued reader (and a very fine writer) has asked me whether I plan to talk much about the Romantic poets in my new book. A Critical History of the English Short Story.  With the exception of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which I take to be a classic short story, and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, I do not plan to forage in the exquisite gardens of the Romantic poets, although I have taught them many times.  However, I do talk a bit about origins of the short story in the Romantic period, and include a draft here about that connection.  Thanks, Dorothy, for the conversation.

From the very beginnings of short story criticism, literary historians have attempted to account for the common judgment that the short story began in America in the early nineteenth century by distinguishing short fiction of this period from that written previously in England and Europe. For example, in l90l, in the first extended formal discussion of the form after Poe, American critic Brander Matthews attributed the difference to a new sense of "compression, originality, ingenuity, and fantasy." The following year, critic Bliss Perry denied this distinction, arguing  that the tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer exhibit the same characteristics. Instead, Perry claimed, the nineteenth century short story is distinguished from earlier stories by the "attitude" of the story writer toward his material. A few years later, H. S. Canby made this emphasis on the attitude of the teller more specific. In the nineteenth century short story, argued Canby, there is a more vivid "realization for the reader of that which moved the author to write, be it incident, be it emotion, be it situation.... Thus the art of the short story becomes as much an art of tone as of incident."
Because tone rather than plot or character has frequently been cited as a distinguishing characteristic of short fiction, perhaps this feature signifies the best place to more clearly establish what is uniquely new in short fiction in the early nineteenth century. One source of the focus on tone in early short fiction can be found in the eighteenth-century personal essay, which added a sophisticated reflective voice to the exemplum, the basic form of short narrative previously predominant. In  the early nineteenth century, this personalized voice was further combined with the new romantic interest in folktale and legend. For example, in America, although Washington Irving took his "story" from folklore, it was his "voice" that set his sketches apart from the Germanic models he used for "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  In an 1824 letter to Henry Brevort, Irving said, "I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment and language; the weaving of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half concealed vein of humour that is often playing through the whole--these are among what I aim at."
 It is obvious that Diedrich Knickerbocker, the voice of Irving's two most famous tales, is more like  the eighteenth-century voice of the Spectator's English squire Roger de Coverly than he is like the anonymous storyteller of folk tale and ballad. The basic difference is that whereas in the folk tale the personality of the teller is backgrounded,  the "town talker" depends on his own personal impression of that which he narrates. If  Irving's   Sketchbook, especially the "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" stories, mark a new departure for short fiction, that innovation lies in the uniting of folklore story with the individualized teller and thus, while maintaining interest in the story, adding a subjective interest. Another well-known example of this combination of  the spooky tale with the sophisticated teller  is Gogol's "The Overcoat," an often-cited candidate for the honor of originating  the short story in the nineteenth century in Europe.
For the folklore teller, it is the story that is important, not the characters as individuals nor the personality of the teller. With Chaucer and Boccaccio (where of course we have dramatized and individualized tellers, even very famous ones in Chaucer), although the tales may reveal something about the personalities of the tellers, either as to their type or as to their social milieu generally, the tellers do not significantly take part in the story itself, nor do they reveal in any engaged way how they feel about either the stories they are telling or the characters in them.  It is only after the romantic shift that the feeling of the teller gives importance to the action of the tale. 
Although neither Bliss Perry nor H. S. Canby specify what the change in attitude in the teller or the new emphasis on tone means for the short story, it might be suggested that it marks a loss of "faith" in the supernatural content of the story once held by the old folk teller and the consequent adoption of a new ironic view by the sophisticated teller. However, this new sophisticated attitude is also marked, as is suggested by Boris Ejxenbaum in his famous 1918 essay on Gogol's "The Overcoat," by a nostalgia for what has been lost. The secularizing of the supernatural in the short story in the nineteenth century means that the drama of the clash between the sacred and the profane no longer takes place in the cosmos or in the lives of the saints, but rather in the psyches of individuals, as Hawthorne and Poe's stories so amply show. 
This secularizing and internalizing of the sacred is a basic Romantic view, outlined by M. H. Abrams as "natural supernaturalism. However, the implications of this shift, although discussed by Abrams, Robert Langbaum, and others in terms of the poetry of the period, have never been explored in short fiction, for short fiction's relationship to Romanticism has itself seldom been examined.
The only extended discussion of the romantic element in the short story is Mary Rohrberger's book on Hawthorne and the modern short story. By citing from Hawthorne's prefaces as well as from the comments of various contemporary short story writers, Rohrberger argues that both Hawthorne and modern short story writers share the romantic notion of a reality that lies beyond the extensional, everyday world with which the novel has always been traditionally concerned.  Consequently, the form shares characteristics with the romance in being symbolic and romantic. "The short story derives from the romantic tradition," argues Rohrberger. "The metaphysical view that there is more to the world than that which can be apprehended through the senses provides the rationale for the short story which is a vehicle for the author's probing of the nature of the real.  As in the metaphysical view, reality lies beyond the ordinary world of appearances, so in the short story, meaning lies beneath the surface of the narrative.           
Although  Rohr Berger is surely right in claiming that the short story is closer to the romance form than to the novel in its basically symbolic nature, she treats the form as though it were identical to the romance, failing to consider either the new emphasis on tone in short fiction in the nineteenth century or the unavoidable influence of the "objective" and "realistic" conventions of fiction pioneered in the novel during the eighteenth century. The short story cannot be considered a "new" form in the nineteenth century if it is simply a resurgence of the old romance. What must be examined is the result of the combination of the symbolic romance form with the new emphasis on the teller and the new focus on the "real," as opposed to the "ideal." Only then can we understand how reality can be shown to lie beneath the ordinary world of appearances even as the details of the story focus on the external world.
 I would like to suggest three basic implications of this shift that influence the short story form throughout the nineteenth century. First of all, the shift of emphasis from the sacred as a transcendent realm to taking it to be a human projection places a new focus not only on the imagination as the source of the sacred, but on the theme of the imaginative construction of reality itself. Consequently, short fiction of the nineteenth century often presents a situation that is ambiguously both real and imaginative. Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is the classic example. Second, the supernatural figures of the old romance story, which were formerly taken to be symbolic of transcendent values, are transformed into projective fictions of either the teller or the central character. Melville's Bartleby is such a seemingly supernatural yet ultimately metaphoric projective figure. Third, the teller, even though he  still focuses on the formerly supernatural subject matter of the old romance and folk tale, does so without belief in the supernatural or transcendent. The result is that he often is transformed into an ironic voice. As Boris Ejxenbaum has shown, Gogol's "Overcoat" is an experiment with this combination or folk tale and ironic voice. 
One way to approach the short story's romantic nature is to examine the question of when and where the short story form thrives and blossoms--the kind of social situation and cultural milieu wherein the short story seems more relevant to the concerns of a society than the novel. For example, George Lukacs has suggested that the short fiction form appears in either a phase of "a Not Yet" (Nochnicht) or in a phase of the "No Longer" (Nichtmehr).  Boccaccio's tales appear in an era before the modern bourgeois novel, before there was a  totality of human relations and behavior as interpreted by bourgeois society.
Lukacs says that  fiction withdraws from the novel into the short form when "the social basis, the social milieu of the novel disappears, and the central figure must hold his own against a pure natural occurrence. Lukacs might have added that this natural rather than social conflict does not come from the outside only. The inward turning of fiction begins in the romantic period and reaches such heights in the later nineteenth century that the  internalized, secularized, and projective romance form vies with the novel form for predominance. The modern return to this mode began with the Romantic period when character "revelation" rather than character "evolution" became most important and when the notion of epiphany replaced socially established value as the source of meaning. When external values are lost, then the short fiction form seems most appropriate to the milieu. The short story has always been an antisocial form, either in its adherence to mythic relationships or in its adoption of secularized psychological replacements for the lost myth. 
The short narrative form in the modern world, regardless of what sophistication it has received at the hands of contemporary artists, remains close to the presocial modes with which It began.  In a   Kenyon Review Symposium several years ago, writers from all over the world testified to this fact.  For example, Erih Kos of Yugoslavia said that since his country has only recently emerged from a peasant economy, it also has only recently emerged from the period of myths. The short story is a popular form in Yugoslavia, says Kos, because the people are "still under the influence of myths, whose magical lights give fateful significance to all everyday happenings, even apparently insignificant ones."
Because the short story does not deal with unified social values, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is fragmentation of values and people. This fragmentation has often been cited as one reason why the short story became quickly popular in early nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short story writers dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. "The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does," argued Gerould.
 Wendell Harris and Lionel Stevenson have suggested somewhat the same reason for the predominance of the novel in English literature. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or "agglomerate" and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. The fragmentation of sensibility did not set in in England until about 1880 at which time the short story came to the fore as the best medium for presenting this fragmentation. Wendell Harris also reminds us that the nineties in England were known as the golden age of the short story and notes how with the fragmentation of sensibility, perspective or "angle of vision "becomes most important in fiction, especially in the short story in which, instead of a world to enter as in the novel, the form presents a vignette to contemplate. 
Harris has also noted that from Fielding to Hardy, fiction was defined in England as "a presentation of life in latitudinal or longitudinal completeness." This concept of narrative paralleled man's intellectual concern with society;  thus the short story was thought to be insignificant in England until late in the nineteenth century when the appropriate vision for it arrived. The "essence of the short story" says Harris, "is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation detached from the great continuum  at once social and historical, on which it had been the business of the English novel, and the great concern of nineteenth century essayists, to insist." As Frank O'Connor has noted, whereas the  novel can adhere to the classical concept of a civilized society, "the short story, remains, by its very nature remote from the community  romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
In the most generalized sense, then, the basic development of short narrative, from its origins in mythic accounts up through the beginning of the nineteenth century, can be summarized in the following way: Beginning with the first major shift from the old romance story of the middle ages when Boccaccio secularized the tale form and made a human comedy out of a previously divine one, continuing on up through the eighteenth century, the history of the form is one of a developing movement away from the metaphoric parable toward the realistic in which, although the "end" of the story was still to focus on a moral purpose, the "means" of the story was to appeal to verisimilitude and reason and to depend on the involvement and attitude of the individual teller.  
With Horace Walpole's experimental combining of the romance story with novelistic characters in "The Castle of Otranto," we see a  self-conscious effort to return to the old metaphoric romance form while using the methods of verisimilitude of the novel. The result was that gothic fiction became projective, dealing not with external values, but with subjective values, with dream material and psychologized reality. Mrs. Barbauld's experiment with the gothic fragment "Sir Bertrand" further emphasized the projective origins of short fiction by detaching character and event from any semblance of social framework and presenting story as the embodiment of dream. With the gothic writers and the romantic poets of the early part of the nineteenth century, we see a shift away from a concept of language as referential and the art work  as imitative to a view of language as constitutive and the art work as creative.
The Romantics demythologized the old tales and ballads, divesting them of their external values and remythologized them by internalizing those values and self-consciously projecting them outwards. The Romantics wished to preserve the old religious values of the romance and ballad forms without their religious dogma and mythological trappings. By perceiving the origin of the old story mode to be within basic psychic processes, they secularized the myth by radically foregrounding the subjective and projective nature of story. 
This effort to return to the old religious perception of the world discarded by the eighteenth century was spearheaded by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the  Lyrical Ballads. The ballad story, which had previously existed seemingly in vacuo as received story without the influence of the teller, now became infused with the subjectivity of the poet and projected onto the world as a new mythus. Value existed in the world outside, but as the Romantics never forgot, only because it existed first within the imagination of the artist. This basically romantic view infused the epoch- making Lyrical Ballads and underlies an important distinction between the romantic lyric and eighteenth century poetry before it. 

The Romantics' fascination with medievalism and folk material sprang from their realization of the basic religious or spiritual source of both the old romance and the folk ballad. Their return to the old ballads was part of their effort to recapture the primal  religious experience without received dogma. This is indeed the focus in Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" and in Coleridge's discussion of his and Wordsworth's dual tasks in The Biographia Literaria. As Robert Langbaum has argued, the uniting of the old ballad material with the lyric voice of  a single individual perceiver in a concrete situation gave rise to the romantic lyric. The positioning of a real speaker in a concrete situation encountering a particular phenomenon which his own subjectivity transforms from the profane into the sacred is the key to the Romantic breakthrough. 
  As Coleridge says, his own task was to focus on the supernatural, "yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."  Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to choose subjects from ordinary life and "excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us." Clear examples of this dual project are Coleridge's lyrical story, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's lyrical story, "Resolution and Independence."  In the Lyrical Ballads, the ballad or "story" element, the hard outlines of the event, are subsumed by the lyrical element, which is foregrounded. However, in America, for Hawthorne and Poe, it is the story element that is foregrounded. The lyrical element is  primarily reflected by the personal voice of the teller. 
Consequently, while America is usually given the credit for originating the short story, it is clear that the basic impulse for the form began in England with the Romantic poets. Because the new subjective narrative impulse was fulfilled by Romantic poetry and fiction in England was identified with the realistic impulse of the novel, the short story did not develop in England during the Romantic period. However, this is not to say that one cannot find examples in short narrative during the period of the conventions which later dominate the short story. 
In next week's post, I will discuss three well known and often cited short narratives from the early nineteenth century in England to point out how they make use of, although perhaps not with the same facility as stories in America and on the Continent, the same devices and assumptions that underlie the more accepted beginnings of the form with Poe and Gogol.  I choose Lamb's "Dream Children" because of its focus on the tension between reality and imagination; John Polidori's "The Vampyre," because of the projective nature of its character configuration; and Sir Walter Scott's "Wandering Willie's Tale" because of the relationship between its narrator and the traditional ballad story.  I will provide footnote documentation at the end of Part II of this discussion.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Rudyard Kipling and Craft of Fable: Part II: "Without Benefit of Clergy," "Mary Postgate," "The Gardener":

        
        When I posted Part I of my discussion of Kipling's short stories last week, I really wasn't sure anyone would be interested in him in this day and age.  But the post, which included a discussion of "The Man Who Would Be King," received a fairly large number of views. Thank you.  What follows is the conclusion of a draft of the chapter on Kipling in the book I am working on entitled A Critical History of the British Short Story.  I would appreciate comments and suggestions.

          The tenuous world of fable is also the subject of Kipling's other well-known India tale, "Without Benefit of Clergy." This story has already been analyzed thoroughly by Eliot L. Gilbert who offers an existential reading of the tale, suggesting that in its depiction of an absurd universe it is very much like the conclusion of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Gilbert says that the threat of disaster broods over the story and that the "sense of the irrationality of life is always lurking in the background."  The basic theme of the story, says Gilbert, is the futility of ritual and conventions as a hedge against disaster. However, he suggests a moral interpretation of  the characters' need for order; for the need implies a distaste for the world as it is and a great longing "to substitute for the disorganized reality of today, the perfectly structured artifice of tomorrow."  Eliot suggests that Kipling is saying here that the untidy reality of today is the only reality there is and that life has a law of compensation which decrees that provision for the future must be made at the expense of the present.

            Such a reading, although perhaps justifiable in terms of the content of the story, ignores the fabular structure of the tale and insists that the story exists in a cosmic reality of external "justice" or "retribution." However, what the story actually depicts is the typical "double life" of fiction itself in that John Holden lives in two worlds--the world of everyday reality of his government job and the self-created fantasy world of his life with Ameera. The first is a world governed by the rules and laws of society, whereas the second violates all rules and laws of the first by attempting to set up purely aesthetic laws of its own. In the social world, Holden must conceal all traces of both happiness and sorrow in his fantasy world where Ameera is all the world in his eyes and exists only for him: "When the big wooden gate was bolted behind him he was king in his own territory, with Ameera for queen." The child that is expected when the story begins is a symbol of the bond that exists between them, an embodiment of their complete devotion to one another.  

      Throughout the story, Ameera is aware of the external world that threatens to impinge upon them as she worries about the white mem-log who might take Holden from her. When the child is born, the baby becomes "a small gold-coloured little god" and is named Tota, for the parrot who is regarded as a sort of guardian-spirit of native households. And indeed he is a symbol of the little house that serves as Holden's fantasy world. It is only when the child begins to develop individuality, when he tells Holden that he is not a spark but a man, that abruptly he becomes ill and dies. Holden must then turn his mind to his work; and indeed the focus of the story shifts to the everyday world when Holden discovers that the "old programme" of "famine, fever, and cholera," which soon takes Ameera, has reestablished itself. Holden's cry, "Oh, you brute! You utter brute!" is a cry against brute reality itself. The story ends with Holden's return to the house three days later to find it looking as though it had been untenanted for thirty years. The owner of the house says he will have it pulled down "so that no man may say where this house stood."  The end of the story marks the end of the fantasy itself, for with the reassertion of reality the story itself inevitably must end.

        Just as in "The Man Who Would be King," although certainly here with a different tone, the fabular nature of "Without Benefit of Clergy" is characterized by Biblical language and poetic talk, talk which Ameera characterizes as "very good talk."  Indeed, it is talk that perpetuates the fantasy situation, for dialogue is the central means by which the story is told. The story opens with dialogue about the impending birth of the child and continues throughout with Holden and Ameera speaking in "thees" and "thous" and trying to live within a world of "good talk," even though Ameera finds that with the birth of the child, she must have "straight talk" and "very hard talk" in a way that she did not have to think of before.

            It is not that the child must die in order to prove that ritual is not a hedge against cosmic reality, but rather the child must die because he is a concrete symbol of the intangible fantasy world that holds Holden and Ameera together. However, the problem is that the child is not only symbol but also external reality; that is, he is heir to the rules that govern the external world, rather than a creature solely of the "good talk" that governs the fantasy world. In the terms of the fable, when Holden asserts his individuality he escapes the realm of symbol, and thus his death destroys the fantasy world itself. The death of Ameera is only the ultimate objectification of the death of the fantasy world which is finally objectified in the destruction of the house so that the fantasy world becomes as if it had never existed at all. Just as in "The Man Who Would be King," the fantasy world can exist only so long as external reality is not allowed to intrude, only so long as the participants of the fable can maintain their separation in a world of their own making.

        "Mary Postgate" has been singled out by Boris Ford in his discussion of Kipling as representative of many of Kipling's shortcomings as an artist. The story is "internally quite bogus," says Ford, "manipulated from the outside and for preconceived purposes." Ford accuses Kipling of creating the story purely for the purpose of indulging his own feelings of revenge and hysteria, thus making the central character a vehicle for his own vicarious enjoyment. ( "A Case for Kipling," p. 7l). This is a harsh criticism typical of critics who refuse to look at Kipling's short fictions as stories which exist in their own right, preferring instead to make moral judgments on Kipling himself. The conclusion of the story, when Mary Postgate allows the fallen enemy pilot to die, is indeed a shocking one, but should be understood in terms of the character that Kipling creates. The most interesting aspect of the story is that it focuses on a character who is only known from the outside and who only exists in relation to other characters. As her mistress says to her at one point, "Mary, aren't you anything except a companion?  Would you ever have been anything except a companion?"  Mary's response is, "I don't imagine I ever should. But I've no imagination, I'm afraid."

         However, it is precisely Mary's imagination, an imagination that is never revealed to us until the shocking conclusion, that is the subject of the story. To Miss Fowler, Mary is but a companion; to young Wyndham Fowler, she is an "unlovely" orphaned nephew--"Gatepost," "Postey," or "Packthread," his "butt and his slave." When she cannot master the charts he brings home from the war, he says, "You look more or less like a human being.... You must have had a brain at some time in your past.... You haven't the mental capacity of a white mouse." Whatever Mary thinks of Wyndham is not directly revealed, for we never know what she thinks. "What do you ever think of, Mary?" Miss Fowler demands at one point. The reader can only guess.

         And the only guess the reader can make is based on her reaction to news of Wyndham's death. "The room was whirling round Mary Postgate, but she found herself quite steady in the midst of it." Passivity is indeed Mary's primary characteristic, passivity and what Miss Fowler recognizes as her "deadly methodical" nature. Mary's true imaginative relationship to Wyndham is indicated by her preparations to burn all of his things. The extremely long list of items that fill almost a page of text indicates, without sentimentalizing, Mary's devotion to Wyndham. But it is the death of the child in town by a bomb that more fully objectifies Mary's relationship to the dead young man. After she sees the ripped and shredded body of the child, she uses Wyndham's words about the enemy: "'Bloody pagans!'  They are bloody pagans.  But,' she continued, falling back on the teaching that had made her what she was, 'one mustn't let one's mind dwell on these things.'" By the time she reaches home, the affair seems remote by its very monstrousness.

         However, as she prepares the sacrificial oil to burn the remaining possessions of Wyndham, the images of Wyndham and the child return in the person of the downed enemy pilot. As the pilot asks for help, she cries, "Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn." And the dead child she has seen is of course not only the child in the village, but also the image of Wyndham, the only child, in her passivity, she has ever had. As the pilot cries for help, she screams, "Stop that, you bloody pagan" in Wyndham's own words. Consequently, the pilot becomes not a human being, but a thing responsible for the death of Wyndham and the child in the village. As she hums and tends the fire, she thinks, "if it did not die before [tea-time] she would be soaked and have to change."

            Mary's primary characteristics of passivity and method serve her well here as she thinks with a secret thrill that she can be useful in the war effort. As she waits for the man to die, "an increasing rapture laid hold on her. She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel.  Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life."  When the sound of death does come, she says, "That's all right," just as she has said when she found out that Wyndham had fallen from four thousand feet. After she goes to the house and takes a luxurious hot bath before tea, Miss Fowler finds her relaxed on the sofa, looking "quite handsome!"

        Mary Postgate, solid and unknowable as her name implies, is the kind of character that Katherine Mansfield often singles out later on in British short fiction. "Mary Postgate" is a tacit story of Mary's hidden life in which she lives only in her imaginative relationship with others.  What the story provides is the ironic single opportunity for Mary to act, by refusing to act, thus creating a bitter epiphany for the reader. Her secret thrill and final transfiguration result from her sense of being allowed to act in the world that she previously has only read about in the newspapers. The dropping of the pilot from the sky is like the magical breaking in of the external world into her previously hermetically-sealed world of passivity. It allows her to perform what she understands to be useful work in the world. The fantasy world becomes momentarily real and thus Mary finds a release for her previously unexpressed desires.

            Like "Mary Postgate," Kipling's most famous story, "The Gardener," also depends on  concealment of an inner life for its effect. And Like "Without Benefit of Clergy," it depends on the notion of a double life, a split between external reality and a tenuous inner reality. Both Edmund Wilson and Frank O'Connor call "The Gardner" Kipling's best story, even a masterpiece, but, as so often the case with Kipling criticism, they do so with reservations.  Edmund Wilson believes that the story is not of the highest quality because of the fairy tale properties of the ending. O'Connor also has serious reservations about the conclusion of the story when Helen goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her illegitimate son and meets a man she supposes to be the gardener, thus echoing the mistake of Mary Magdalene when she goes to the tomb and meets the resurrected Jesus.

         The impact of the conclusion of the tale depends, of course, on the fact that Kipling has concealed the truth about the boy being Helen's son throughout the story. O'Connor accepts the argument that such a concealment might be justified by the fact that Helen herself has concealed this knowledge from the village, but still he does not believe that this rescues the story. O'Connor says that had he written the story he would have revealed the illegitimacy at the beginning. The result would be to remove the story from the world of celestial gardeners and place it in the real world, thus indicating throughout that "The Gardner" is a story of Helen's heroism in bringing the child home in the first place (l0l-l03).

          Eliot Gilbert has tackled these objections to the story directly and has suggested that Kipling is not guilty of trickery here, but instead has concealed the facts of Helen's case as an essential echo of the theme of concealment which prepares the reader to experience the same shock that Helen does at the end. He argues that the supernatural ending "represents the final intensification of the author's vision, too compressed and cryptic to find expression within the realistic framework of the rest of the tale." However, as excellent as Gilbert's discussion is in rescuing the story, it still would not dismiss O'Connor's misgivings, nor does it clearly explain why Kipling's vision requires the so-called supernatural conclusion.

         The basic technique of the story depends on a gap between details that are "public property," that is, details which the village is aware of and which in turn the reader knows, and unwritten details which are private property, known only to Helen herself. What is public is a lie and what is private is the truth. Furthermore, what is ugly in the public eye is revealed as beautiful in the eye of the reader at the conclusion.  The basic question is: what makes the truth beautiful at the end? Even at the conclusion, Helen does not accept the young man as her son, still referring to him as her nephew, thus continuing the protective lie she has perpetuated throughout the story. The irony, however, lies in the fact that Helen's heroism depends precisely on this concealment, for it is obviously done not for her own sake, but for her child's.

            Earlier in the story, when the boy wants to call Helen "Mummy," and she allows him to do so as their secret only at bedtime, she reveals the secret to her friends, telling the boy that it's always best to tell the truth. His reply--"when the troof's ugly I don't think it's nice"--constitutes a revealing irony in the story about the nature of truth and its relationship to beauty. What the boy calls "ugly" is the truth Helen tells that the boy calls her "Mummy," even though she is not his mother. The truth that she is his mother is however the beautiful truth that cannot be revealed within the profane realm of everyday society, for that truth would indeed be ugly from that profane point of view.

            The death of the boy and his mysterious spontaneous burial under the shelled foundation of a barn marks the psychic death of Helen also, for in her double life, she truly has lived, like Mary Postgate, only for her son. The resurrection of his body marks a parallel resurrection for her as she makes her trip to visit the grave. Mrs. Scarsworth is, as other critics have well noted, an embodiment of Helen's split self and thus echoes her previous position. Mrs. Scarsworth tells Helen that she is tired of lying. "When I don't tell lies I've got to act 'em and I've got to think 'em always. You don't know what that means." Helen of course knows precisely what that means, but even though she is the one most able to directly sympathize with Mrs. Scarsworth, still she cannot tell the truth, for that truth is ugly within the profane world.

            However, what is ugly to the profane world is finally revealed as beautiful within the realm of the sacred. Helen, who is both Mary Magdalene, the fallen, and Mary the mother of Christ, goes to find the grave of her son and savior and is directed to it by the ultimate embodiment of the sacred. It seems inevitable, in a story which deals with a double life-- the life of public property and the life of private emotion--that the ultimate incarnation of spirit within body in Western culture should be the means by which the secret of spirit is revealed to the reader. The secret revealed at the end of the story is the same as the one revealed when Mary comes to look for the body of Christ--that is, that he is not here, but has arisen--that is, that he is not body but spirit. The true reality of the story is the reality of the sacred and always hidden world, which is sacred precisely because of its hidden nature.
           
            As is usually the case in short fiction, it is the world of spirit, the world of the sacred that constitutes the truth, and that truth, regardless of what it appears to be within the profane framework, is always beautiful. It is not so much that Kipling plays a supernatural trick at the end of the story, but rather that he needs an ultimate embodiment of spirit within body to communicate the ironic reversal of the apparent lie being the most profound truth. The not-told of the short story is more important than what is told, for what cannot be told directly always constitutes the ideal nature of story itself.

                                                                     Works Cited

Allen, Walter. The Short Story in English. Oxford: Clarendon,  l98l.

Dobree, Bonamy. Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist. Oxford UP,  l967.

Fussell, Paul. "Irony, Freemasonry, and Humane Ethics in Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be
            King." English Literary History 25 (1958): 2l6-33.

Gilbert, Eliot L. The Good Kipling: Studies in the Short Story. Athens: Ohio UP, l970). 21-49.

James, Henry. "The Young Kipling." Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. NY UP, l965.

Lewis, C. S. "Kipling's World." Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. NY UP, l965.

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. Cleveland, Ohio: World, l963.

Robson, W.W. "Kipling's Later Stories." Kipling's Mind and Art, Ed. Andrew Rutherford.  Stanford UP,             1964.


Wilson, Edmund. "The Kipling that Nobody Read." Kipling's Mind and Art. Ed. Andrew
            Rutherford. Stanford UP, l964.

Lionel Trilling's essay from The Liberal Imagination is reprinted in Kipling and the Critics, pp.
            89-98;

Edmund Wilson's essay from The Wound and the Bow is reprinted in Kipling's Mind and Art, pp.

            17-69.